Sentimentalism would not be high on pastors’ lists of threats to the church, were they to be polled for such a thing. False doctrine, lack of commitment, entertainment culture, the homosexual lobby, Youtube attention spans, radical Islam, the prosperity gospel, declining missions, pornography, moral failure in leaders, pragmatism and a host of others might be on the list. Sentimentalism? You think a few sappy Christians who get teary-eyed over Kinkade and kittens are a mortal threat to the church? No, not when you put it that way, which is, ironically enough, a sentimental way of defining sentimentalism.
Sentimentalism, as Jeremy Begbie puts it, is at least three things. First, it is a distortion of reality by trivialising or evading evil. A fiction of innocence is projected onto self, others, and the world. This can only be done by mentally avoiding the irrationality and horrific nature of evil, and selecting those parts of life which are pleasing and good – and exaggerating them. Ambiguity and disharmony are spray-painted over with glib trivialisations, “it’s not that bad”, “people are just people, in the end”, “he’s in a better place, at least”, “death is just a doorway”, or the musical trivialisations of pop tunes.
Second, sentimentality uses that air-brushed view of the world to be emotionally self-indulgent: loving its own feelings more than any reality which supposedly evokes them. It does not merely cry, it loves to cry; it does not simply hate, it enjoys the hate; it is not simply “passionate”, it is passionate about being passionate; it is not only sincere, it deeply moved by how sincere it is. In fact, it is even more satisfied with how its emotion will impress others (how many likes and comments did my Fakebook rant over the poor service or my post goo-gahing over my child get? I’ve checked at least every five minutes). The sentimentalist’s emotions have become a kind of narcotic, a high he seeks to avoid the hard edges of reality. Music is just a soundtrack to the movie he’s starring in, other people are the audience, relationships are the characters that orbit his absorbingly compelling existence.
Third, sentimentality takes no appropriate costly action. A sentimentalist uses life as a backdrop for his selfie, which he then views repeatedly. He is not responding to life as it is, and making changes. He is responding to his falsified version of life, which allows him to keep feeling his treasured feelings. He lives in his own little hall of mirrors, and that is as he would have it.
Granted, this sounds amusing at first. But imagine, for a moment, that sentimentalism is a bigger problem than you’ve thought. Imagine, for example, that the following kinds of people existed:
- “Worshippers” who love their deep worshipful feelings with scrunchy-face intensity, who believe that bands and preachers that can make them cry are totally deep.
- “Worshippers” who long for the ‘beautiful old hymns’, by which they mean the Smiley-Face hymns of 19th century Victorian Romanticism.
- Listeners who want sermons that ‘make us feel uplifted’ and hate sermons on sin, judgement and Hell.
- Listeners who want sermons that ‘tell it like it is’ and hate sermons on mercy, compassion, and Heaven.
- Preachers who take their listeners on an emotional rollercoaster, but safely deposit them exactly where they were at the beginning, knowing they’ll wipe their tears and come back next week.
- Preachers who use gutter-talk, racy illustrations and gruesome descriptions because they’re keeping it real, man.
- Married couples whose marriages are devastated because they were searching for passionate feelings that never seemed to last, who do nothing with biblical counsel, because they are waiting for passionate feelings to develop and propel them into action.
- Christians in chronic depression over the world, because it is darker, more disturbing, and more ambiguous than they want it to be.
- Christians in chronic cynicism over the church, because reality is darker, more disturbing and more ambiguous than most Christians admit.
- Parents who are drooling with ‘love’ over their widdle-munchy-munchykin, but will have all the brutality of a death-camp commander should their child be denied something by the Sunday School teacher, or should the church make demands on family-time.
- Christians whose believe their deepest spiritual experiences have been while watching The Passion of the Christ, Fireproof, Ben-Hur, or Facing the Giants.
Imagine if such people existed.
What if we made some Christians test their favourite clichés on real life? Or better yet, what if we asked them to explain Scripture in light of their untested assumptions?
Take an Evangelical’s handy verbal dismissal of all attempts to form and nurture good judgement in him: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What he thinks he means by that is that beauty is a variable standard, shaped by personal preference. What he actually means is that beauty is pleasure – when someone approves of something, delights in it, or admires it, he regards it as ‘beautiful’, which is just another way of saying, it pleases him. Therefore, beauty is the pleasure of a subject in an object, not anything pleasing in the object.
Let’s try that on a few verses of Scripture.
“And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. (Exo 28:2)
Moses was to oversee the making of special clothing for the High Priest, which would provoke pleasure in those that found them pleasurable.
One thing I have desired of the LORD, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD All the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD, And to inquire in His temple. (Psa 27:4)
David desires to look upon his own sense of pleasure in God, because David finds something personally pleasing in the otherwise morally-neutral attributes of God.
Give to the LORD the glory due His name; Bring an offering, and come before Him. Oh, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness! (1Ch 16:29)
Holiness is a pleasurable experience for some, and those that find it so, should worship God in their pleasure. Give God the glory commensurate with your personal pleasure in Him.
Honour and majesty are before Him; Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. (Psa 96:6)
God possesses honour, majesty, strength, and potential pleasure for some.
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ (Phi 1:9-10)
Paul prays that the Philippians’ love would grow both in knowledge and in discernment, which would enable them to find pleasure in their own personal preferences.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy– meditate on these things. (Phi 4:8)
Paul desires that Christians should meditate on what is true, noble, just, pure, and on all the other things they find personally pleasing, and sweet to their own preferences.
Isn’t it interesting how some ideas are like handfuls of sand when we actually pick them up to examine them?
“And this place would be packed on a Sunday?” said the boy, deliberately raising his voice a little, to hear the ghostly echo.
“Hm?” His father turned around from inspecting the wood carvings on a piece of fixed furniture. “Oh, yes. Standing-room only, sometimes.”
The boy’s footsteps along some stonework along the sides gave a rich, sonorous klop-klop. He enjoyed accenting his steps, and then craned his head up to see where a sandstone pillar met the arches above. “How long did it take them to build?”
“Well, that depends on who you mean by them. The builders? It took around 120 years for several generations to build it.” He gently slid his finger across the top of an ancient window sill and rubbed off the dust. “But they could not have built it in 120 years without many more hundreds of years of thought and work that went before them. You don’t just decide to build this in a generation or two.”
He went silent and hoped his son would dwell on that. Instead, the boy had found a squeaky pew, and was grinning as he got a rhythm of squeaks out of it by rocking back and forth.
Father sighed and went on looking, hands behind his back, gently strolling.
“So what’s it used for today?” the boy called out.
A gentle mumbling at the entrance gave the answer, and father motioned towards it. A tour group with brochures, cameras, and a soft-spoken guide had shuffled in, but their chattiness had become strangely muted as they came under the great vaulted ceiling.
“Unbelievers with a love of beauty, church history buffs, and the occasional eccentrics like me come here. Mostly just to admire.” And then, almost under his breath, “not to worship.”
His son had caught that. He was pretending to remain uninterested, but his curiosity was getting the better of him. “So why don’t we come here any more? I mean, if they were so popular, why did they stop using them?”
Father hated trying to answer a question like that to a fifteen-year-old’s attention span. He prayed. He paused. “One reason is that most people in the countries in which these were built began to believe a terrible lie about reality that made a place like this seem less real, and eventually, unreal. Places like this became an oddity.”
“And those who used to worship here?”
“They believed a different lie. They believed that popularity was more important than the meaning of this kind of thing. Eventually, since most of the surrounding unbelieving people thought of this kind of place as odd and unreal, the believers took the same view, to appear relevant. They abandoned these places, because otherwise they might have risked appearing odd and irrelevant.” He grimaced at his over-simplification.
“That’s why we go to a theatre with comfy seats every Sunday, right?” the boy said, trying to be funny. Dad didn’t laugh. He turned away and gazed at the Stations of the Cross pictured on the windows. The boy sensed his father’s sadness.
“It can’t be that hard to build something like this with the technology we have today. What took them 120 years could be done in less than five.”
The father sat on one of the pews, and motioned to his son to join him.
“Son, the point is not whether we can duplicate something like this. Sure we can. We might even be able to do it with more precision than they could have.” He pursed his lips and formed his thoughts.
“The point is: even if we did, who would come here? Do you think we could interest even half the worshippers in our local church to meet in a place like this?” His son said nothing.
“When this was built, grandfather told father who told son what this place meant. They had made it, and they understood it. They loved it not as a badge of refinement, or as a museum piece. It was the expression of what they and their great-grandfathers loved and cherished.
“It is not that we have lost the ability to make these things. We’ve lost the ability to love them. We’ve lost the ability to understand them and allow them to shape us. That ability doesn’t come to us because the church down the road decides to move from a shop-front to here. It comes because generation after generation believe and love the same things. After centuries of loving the same things, they develop better and better ways of expressing those loves and beliefs, and you end up with something like this, ” he said, looking up, and motioning in a circle.
He tried to pause to let all this percolate, but his thoughts were coming faster than he could wait. His tone became more intense.
“See, there’s a reason we meet in the buildings we do on Sundays. There’s a reason the churches that still hold to the apostles’ doctrine won’t be coming back here. Those lies that the culture believed and the lies that the church believed have irreparably broken our link to this. We can’t come back.”
An uncomfortable pause followed. His son swallowed and averted his eyes. “But…we’re here, aren’t we? You love it, and so do some others. That’s got to count for something, right?”
The father’s expression softened, detecting his son’s desire to comfort. They got up and walked slowly past the tour group towards the entrance. “Son, a few oddballs here and there don’t create things like this place. We might appreciate it, and learn to better love it. We can let it have a sanctifying effect on us. But it is no longer ours, like it was our forefathers’.”
At the entrance, they turned around one more time to take in the whole place. The secular tourists with their pointing and snapping were conspicuous in a place of worship.
Father finished his thought. “We know this, because most of those who call themselves the descendants of the builders of this place have no desire to return here.”